Standing in front of a mirror is something we all do every day, mostly with no more than trivial consequences; but when an author, an artist, does it, their reflection can take on the transcendent form of a confession, a purpose (Goya, Velázquez, Van Gogh…), they hide or reveal themselves inside their paintings, or as Flaubert is once quoted as saying, “Madame Bovary c’est moi”. It so happens that two of the greatest, personal and revered living filmmakers, Clint Eastwood and Pedro Almodóvar, have used their latest films, “The Mule” and “Pain and Glory“, as a polished mirror that reflects their image inside, intimate and impossible to appreciate at a glance. These are two directors far removed from each other both ethically and aesthetically, and whose work couldn’t be more antagonistic, but have coincided almost in the day and the hour to present themselves before the mirror and in the confessional.
It’s not the first time Eastwood and Almodóvar have spoken about themselves in their films, because “Gran Torino” was a settling of Eastwood’s personal scores with his classic character (actually, it looked like the testimonial piece of someone who hasn’t yet made their testament), and Almodóvar was reflected with passion and precision in “Law of Desire” and in “Bad Education“. But it is now, in “The Mule” and in “Pain and Glory”, where they both delves deep into their entrails offering a more sincere, confidential and revealing glance to anyone willing to watch and listen.
In “The Mule“, Eastwood reveals his sense of failure and disappointment and intones a kind of regret (repentance) through the central character of his film, Earl Stone, a full-of-beans, womanizing and swindling octogenarian, who travels a tortuous road to recover some of what he has lost, essentially his family. He doesn’t tell us about his life, which we already know, but the impression he has of it right now, the bitter desserts.
Almodóvar does review areas of his biography in the skin of his character, a film director physically pained and emotionally empty, played by Antonio Banderas. He undresses the Manchego director, at least in part, and recreates (marvelously) pictures of his childhood with his mother (a brilliant Penélope Cruz) evoking the faintness of his first erotic premonitions or scents, jasmine and urine, where he saw his first movies. And we can appreciate a more prudent Almodóvar in the reflection of his adult person: he invokes his recent ghosts, his films and the complex and sometimes maggoty-like relationship with some of his actors. It’s him, undoubtedly, and these are his “pains” and his crises, but caution, makeup and semi-nudity are brought forth in conjugating the verb Almodóvar, as if hesitating to let the cameras in, into his cinema, to some areas inside that not even he himself wishes to visit. He does however enter the main area of the film, like a hurricane, that of his relationship with his mother (whose twilight years are played by Julieta Serrano), and yes, here he does allow us to see what he was, what he wasn’t and what it would have liked to have been.
The means both directors adopt to reflect themselves in their movies is interesting: Eastwood has always been a dry, surly guy, hiding his talent and his poetry behind an untamable appearance and a buff and husky style of cinema. Almodóvar, on the other hand, has projected an extroverted, party-loving and ambitious image because his prose (and dubious syntax) acquired poetic tones with the overexposure of his literary, pictorial and musical tastes on the screen… Both “The Mule” and “Pain and Glory” acquire a form that is contradictory to the nature of their authors, as if they were trying to refute and express them at the same time: Eastwood’s film contains a light storyline and a composition of vulgar, dramatic, cunning and ironic gravity, while that of Pedro Almodóvar is drier and denser, and has an undoubted aroma of catharsis, to round off “the ball” from that old memory that choked him in “Bad Education” and that other more recent one that consumed him in “Law of Desire“. There are no signs of shallowness in Almodóvar’s confession.
Eastwood takes a dangerous and probably also cathartic step, by casting his real-life daughter Alison as the character of his fictional daughter in the film, and their scenes together, seeped in feelings and emotions that have been left unaddressed for years, take on an almost testimonial nature, one of a true vital outpouring from both their innermost landscapes. Almodóvar moves other pieces on the board and finds in the precision and delivery of Antonio Banderas the container for his inner searching, for his painful emotional settling of scores with himself, with his work, with his “universe”.
They might be two good movies exclusively within their filmographies, but they have to be placed on a higher pedestal by offering a focused image (another image) of their authors, whose appearances come with a purpose (to be discovered) and a confession (take it or leave it) .